Literature as Politics

  • Michael Keren
    Politics and Literature at the Turn of the Millennium. University of Calgary Press (purchase at
  • Gillian Whitlock
    Postcolonial Life Narrative: Testimonial Transactions. Oxford University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Asma Sayed

Both Michael Keren’s and Gillian Whitlock’s scholarly works, although dealing with different genres—fiction and non-fiction, respectively—offer us interesting and engaging perspectives on the study of humanitarian crises—genocide, poverty, violence, terrorism—and argue that literature can be an important medium for social activism and political engagement and awareness.

Whitlock’s Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions brings together the fields of postcolonialism and life narrative. It is a study of slave narratives, letters, memoirs, journals, biographies, and testimonial narratives from Africa, Canada, Australia, the Caribbean, and India. Drawing inspiration from postcolonial scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Robert J. C. Young, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, and Achille Mbembe, and from others in the field of life writing, such as Sidonie Smith, Julia Watson, Kay Schaffer, and Bart Moore-Gilbert, Whitlock moves “beyond nation and narration to track transnational and transcultural passages of life narrative, its volatile currency and value, and its changing technologies of the self.” Whitlock draws various narratives together through “contiguity, co-location, chronology, appropriation, and remediation to pursue an active engagement with textual transactions and social activism: the politics of abolitionism, anti-apartheid, indigeneity, feminism, environmentalism, refugee rights, for example.”

Whitlock contends that life narratives are critical to understanding human rights and to expanding cultures of care and sympathy. As she rightly asserts, subaltern voices usually struggle to be heard. As such, she includes voices from varied cultures, including slave narratives associated with abolition emancipation campaigns, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimony and memoir, testimonies of Dalit activism, and Indigenous testimony about the Stolen Generations and residential schools in Australia and Canada. Moving beyond the Enlightenment archetype of selfhood which represented a Western, white man, and in an attempt to decolonize the subject, the book focuses on many marginalized pieces of writing. For instance, she compares The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and Captain Watkin Tench’s A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, and argues that while the two narratives draw from different experiences, they both call on readers to bear witness to developments in the “New World.” Many other case studies—such as biographies of Saartjie Baartman, Woollarawarre Bennelong’s letter, and testimonies of rape survivors, among others—are analyzed in a postcolonial context. Whitlock’s research makes an important contribution to the study of literature as a site of social change and activism. The groundbreaking scholarship offers readers a new perspective from which to study life narratives.

In Politics and Literature at the Turn of the Millennium, Keren discusses fictional writing in a socio-political context. He brings together the seemingly disparate fields of politics and literature and suggests that fiction can help with understanding political issues and may be a good pedagogical tool to use in social sciences classrooms. Keren focuses on novels by some of the top-notch novelists of our times: José Saramago, Cormac McCarthy, Gil Courtemanche, Anosh Irani, Haruki Murakami, Günter Grass, André Brink, John le Carré, Sayed Kashua, David Grossman, Margaret Atwood, and Yann Martel. In his introduction, Keren elaborates on theoretical frameworks within which he situates his study: John Kenneth Galbraith’s concept of the “technostructure,” Amitai Etzioni’s model of the “active society,” and Karl Deutsch’s ideas about the “learning capacity” of political organizations. Keren claims that these three scholars “pointed the way and set the conditions for social progress based on human knowledge and creativity.” He suggests that political scientists can use literary texts to teach political theory in more accessible and interesting ways. He gives some examples: Franz Kafka’s works can be used to teach Max Weber’s ideas about bureaucratic structures; George Orwell’s portrayal of totalitarianism may aid understanding of Carl Friedrich’s political theories; Milan Kundera’s novels could help with the explanation of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Keren offers many more examples, and reasons that while novels present imaginary worlds, and do not have the same kind of content as scholarly essays, they help “provide insights into the existing order and a standard for [political order’s] evaluation.” Keren is very clear in his approach; he is in no way suggesting that political theories are not valuable on their own. Rather, he argues, imaginary works may afford alternative representations and “the aesthetic qualities of literature may be used to enrich political inquiry.” The novels that Keren discusses all have political relevance. For example, in his discussion of The Cripple and His Talismans, he looks at how Irani, a South Asian Canadian novelist, uses magical realism to highlight the world of Bombay’s poverty-stricken slums. Keren suggests that Irani’s work allows for an alternative understanding of the politics of the slum, as opposed to what readers may get through United Nations reports, urban studies, and documentary films.

While both books take different theoretical approaches, they provide useful pedagogical tools for introducing literary works in interdisciplinary courses. For example, both testimonial literature and novels can be used in political science or gender studies courses. Keren’s and Whitlock’s books will be of interest to scholars working in the areas of postcolonial literature, humanitarian literature, ethics of care, and the social sciences in general.

This review “Literature as Politics” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 251-252.

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